Righteous Jews, Not So Righteous Jews, and Just Damn Jews

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In a recent bizarre speech at the Palestine Center in Washington DC, April 29, “The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. New Afrikaners,” political scientist John Mearsheimer went over the top.  He predicted the future in the otherwise unpredictable Middle East, characterizing Israelis as inevitable “Afrikaners” in charge of an apartheid state and Palestinians as inevitable secular democrats.  He also characterized American Jews as either righteous Jews (if they agree with him and demonize Israel) or as “new Afrikaners” loyal to the Zionist state (if they don’t).

Regarding American Jews in general, it was somewhat unclear in his mind whether they could achieve the standard of righteousness to which he aspires for them, that is, adopt the views articulated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, or the crackpot Phil Weiss, or would simply when the time came turn out to be damn Jews.

This speech will stimulate new questions about Mearsheimer, co-author of the Israel Lobby, and his attitudes about Jews and his judgment. That book was sloppy and tendentious scholarship but this speech went well beyond.  To Mearsheimer, Israelis are stumbling toward full-fledged apartheid in a Greater Israel; American Jewish leaders are “blindly loyal” to a foreign state.  The Israel lobby (AIPAC etc) embraces racism and endorses Greater Israel. All righteous people, Mearsheimer implied, ought to be opposed to Israel on anti-racist grounds. Apparently, it is today okay once again to objectify Jews or groups of Jews as out of step with humane values.

A century ago, the social scientist Edward A. Ross stood on Union Square in New York City watching the immigrant Jews going by, commenting on their physiognomy whose features to him betrayed obvious failures of intelligence and promise. Now, another social scientist presumes to comment on all the Jews – there and also here — and on their moral promise.  What happened to the cautious Mearsheimer who told the Forward in 2006 one must address these subjects carefully?  “I don’t have an agenda…,” he said.


Why is it once again acceptable for otherwise intelligent people to say the damnedest things about the Jews?  The answer lies in part in the moralism with which some address complicated political issues and also in the campist tendency by which many align with one or another side in the Middle East conflict.  The answer lies too in the outsized noble sense of right – yes, the idealism – with which they come to the issue –even supposed “realists” like Mearsheimer. 

Paul Berman has observed thoughtfully that negative ideas about the Jews have always come from the sense that they are out of step with some lofty universal prescription for redeeming the world, whether Christianity, Enlightenment, Nationalism, or Racialist Pseudo-Science.  Some now look today on the system of states and nationalism as a formula for oppression and war.  The Jews have a state and protect it fiercely – they are out of step.  Many now condemn racism (selectively).  So they oppose or bait the Jews today not on racial but on anti-racist grounds.

“Perhaps this really is an old idea,” suggests French philosopher Alan Finkielkraut, “finding new strength deep beneath the surface.”  The new discourse now accuses the Jews of setting themselves apart and rejecting the gospel of a common, universal identity. “Perhaps it is really the ancient condemnation of the Jew,” Finkielkraut muses: “for … his particularism, his exclusivity, his national egoism, his closed fraternity.”

Thus what is old comes around again in new form. Opposition to the Jews is not because they are stateless; to which creating a state was a response. It is not because they are racially other.  Opposition is because Jews forcefully defend a Jewish state and are allegedly racist, ethnic cleansers, or Afrikaners — opponents of equal human rights. Lost in all the rigid stance-taking and objectifying are some of the complex realities and any real double sided sense of the difficult history.

Writing about Europe several years ago, Pierre Andre Taguieff commented “We are witnessing the reconstitution of an anti-Jewish view of the world.”  Increasingly, it appears, America is not exceptional in this regard, at least in some intellectual circles. The fantasy that Jews, who are two percent of the population, somehow wield extraordinary power, the resentment that Jews cause difficult problems for the national interest and national values, lives on in some minds.

To be more careful, the good professor Mearsheimer would appear not to be an anti-semite – for he caricatures Jews as righteous, unrighteous, and all the spaces in between, and he says that ultimately American Jews’ values will likely sit uneasily with an apartheid Israel.  On the other hand, Mearsheimer does persistently what anti-semites do – he overstates the power of the Jews and he links Jewish views with subversion of the national interest.  In this speech, too, he engaged in straight-out Jew-baiting.  Henry Ford and Father Coughlin used to talk about good Jews and bad Jews too. Most importantly, Mearsheimer failed empathetically in the earlier book or now in this speech to connect with the real historical experience of Jews or the real dilemmas Israelis confront in making peace.  Bernard Henri-Levy calls this kind of move the erasure or negation that marks our time.


It is interesting to comprehend how Israel is depicted in Mearsheimer’s view.  It is not the product of multiple competing strands and a history with multiple possibilities or likely alternative futures.  Israel is instead the product of a maximal Zionist expansionist history carried out without relief against the innocent Palestinians since before the “ethnic cleansing” of 1948. Israel is turned into a caricature, where  — although he seems to know better – the political divisions in Israel past and present are sharply minimized and the leaders are claimed to personify a broadly unified expansionist and racist impulse (or to lack the stature to blunt it).  The oppressed population, on the other hand, is depicted as little responsible for the trajectory or for the outcomes in the conflict to date.

Zionism in pre-independence Israel was maximalist on territory, said Mearsheimer in The Israel Lobby; but the reality was that Zionism was divided pro- and anti-partition from the 1930s forward.  Zionism remained maximalist on territory since 1967, Mearsheimer insisted, but the reality is that Yitzhak Rabin and his successors, with the exception of Benjamin Netanyahu, were strongly committed to partition and to achieving a two-state solution. Mearsheimer’s take about the peace process at Camp David under Clinton, Barak, and Arafat was that Israel under Barak offered the Palestinians little of worth.  As Benny Morris has written, the accounts of those who participated, Dennis Ross and Bill Clinton, confirm exactly the opposite.

Now Mearsheimer insists that Israelis continue to prefer a maximalist Greater Israel, but the reality is that the Peace Now position has in the past generation gone mainstream. Selectively picking his evidence, Mearsheimer insists au contraire that Israel is building apartheid and will become something like white-ruled South Africa.

Here is his view. One, the two state solution has become sheer fantasy – why? Because most Israelis oppose the sacrifices required to bring two states about.  Israel has shifted right and simply cannot be brought back.  Even an American President cannot bring sufficient pressure to bear to change things: the Israel Lobby will prevent any such move. Two, the occupied territories will hence be incorporated into a Greater Israel and the state will become in time a “”full blown apartheid state.”

Third, this state will in the long run not be viable. It will be indefensible because it is opposed to core Western and American values, and it will lose support globally. It will also shed young secular Israeli Jews, including young racist Israeli Jews, he says, who do not see positive prospects down the road.  Fourth, barring an effort by Israel to resort to ethnic cleansing — Mearsheimer says we should not underestimate Israel’s willingness to follow such a horrific strategy –Israel will be transformed into a democratic bi-national state dominated by its Palestinian citizens.  For Palestinians, the short term will be tough; but the long term is in their favor.


One might wonder how Mearsheimer arrives at all these certainties?  One might wonder what consideration should be given in various scenarios to the role of Islamic extremism, Palestinian rejectionism, the division of Palestinian leadership, actual initiatives by the United States or European Union, or responses by other Arab states in the region?  Mostly though, one wonders how Mearsheimer is so sure what exists now in Israel and the occupied territories is incipient apartheid that will grow into “full blown apartheid.” There is no apartheid in Gaza – there is a budding Islamic state; and what exists in the occupied West Bank is occupation, not apartheid. Palestinians are not oppressed on racial grounds; Palestinians are also not confined in separate Bantustans to serve as a reservoir of exploited cheap labor – Israel instead imports migrant labor from other sources and has built a wall against the Palestinian presence.. The majority of Israelis, polls fairly consistently show, do not want to annex the West Bank or to rule permanently over another people. Despite the baneful influences of the settlers and the religious nationalists in Israeli politics, most Israelis desire peace and a partner to make it with.  A majority of Palestinians desire the same thing.

But no, says Mearsheimer, it is not Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East who will or will not make peace but righteous Jews and their allies in the United States who will help shape the Palestinian future.  Israel will create apartheid; the Palestinians will experience it.  Then the good Jews (and other good people) will rally other Jews (and other good people) and blunt the force of the Israel Lobby.  Realism?

Righteous Jews, Not So Righteous Jews, and Just Damn Jews

  • Source: Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)b
  • Originally published on 04/29/2010
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